Teaching Adults at Work - Business Results
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Teaching Adults at Work

Teaching Adults at Work

Think old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Think again. While it may seem harder for people to learn as they get older, it is not impossible. It all comes down to technique. And those techniques don’t just apply to teaching yourself a new language or learning fun facts for trivia night – they apply to teaching employees in the workplace, too.

Learning new skills is essential for healthy brain aging, keeping the brain young by forming new neural pathways and schemas, forcing the brain to think creatively. And it is good for the business, too. Employee learning fuels company growth, and reduces overturn. Lack of development opportunities is one of the top reasons people leave their jobs, according to a survey on employee retention from The Work Institute. Furthermore, when learning opportunities are offered, whether a new skill or a refresher course, not only are employees more likely to stay with their company, but they feel more fulfilled and will become more engaged and profitable. Humans are naturally curious, and over half of surveyed employees took a class in their personal time to learn a skill to use at work. So, offering those learning opportunities from the start keeps everything “in-house,” and keeps your employees around. In addition to benefiting your employees, allowing them to learn and grow, you can also see who would be a good candidate for internal promotion, and develop them into those roles. One key service provided by Business Results is teaching managers how to teach adult learners at work. 

Whatever the reason, employee training must be tailored to suit adult learners, who have vastly different educational needs from when they may have been in school the first time around. If you have a program based on what you remember learning in high school being like, you will have low engagement and participation, and your employees will not take much away from the training. A poor training experience can also discourage employees from continuing to explore their interests or to try again with a different program. Consider the following differences between youth and adult learners when creating your development programs for maximum impact.

Adults generally have more life experience, which they can utilize in problem-solving and logical reasoning while learning. Having more life experience doesn’t necessarily mean that adults are stuck in their ways, however. Whereas learning is a “have-to” for children, their main job being to go to school, education is a “want-to” for adults, and so they tend to have an increased readiness to learn, primarily tied to their social roles, i.e. voluntarily learning about things related to their jobs and lives. Make sure that your training can connect to your employees’ life experiences, as well as ensuring it is relevant to their current roles. You would not give the same training layout to a microbiologist that you would to a CFO, or a grocery store clerk, or a construction worker. Not only because they have different careers and lives, but because their upbringings will affect the way that they learn and what they value or seek to gain from training. By assessing your employees’ needs, you can tailor learning to each individual. Even employee onboarding can be cut to fit. While onboarding and similar trainings have information that needs to be completed by everyone, you can use that time to complete informal assessments that show you where your employees will need further learning, or where they may not need additional training at all.

Adults have also had more time to explore their identities, and to “know” who they are. As a result, they tend to be more independent than children. Children often require a great deal more direction and oversight, whereas adults can guide themselves through most tasks. When planning your course, allow opportunities for your learners to create their own plan of learning, as well as chances for them to evaluate their learning. This helps them to feel in control of their own learning. When you find the areas where your employees need training, involve them in the process. Ask them what they are interested in learning, and share their assessments with them. After completing the course, give them the chance to provide feedback on the instruction and training. Involving your employees in the design of the course lets them know you see them as adults learning, rather than children being taught, and that you are open to seeing them as unique knowledge resources.

Children tend to spend their time learning about core skills, and knowledge that they will continue to build on through their lives. Adults however, focus their energies on learning things which they can immediately apply. They are less likely to want to master a skill, as they are to solve an immediately present problem. They want the details that will help them meet their goals, but not much beyond that. In developing your content, make sure the focus is on the end goal. Your employees want to know with certainty what they will get out of training, and exactly how it is helpful to them. No one wants to take a course just because they have to. Again, involve your employees. Show them their assessment results, explain why the training would help them, and assess them again after completing training. Seeing their improvement will bring them satisfaction, and help them to be more engaged and excited to continue learning and improving. You can also share training progress company-wide, alongside other company performance data. This shows your teams that you believe training is relevant to the company’s success. In creating content relevant to what your employees seek to learn, it is important to involve problem solving exercises. People learn faster when they are engaged in solving an issue or moral dilemma, rather than just reading words on a screen or watching an informational video. These exercises can also take larger concepts and bring them down to a relatable level. Make sure the content of your exercises are relevant to the job, posit questions and dilemmas your workers might actually face. Push your employees to draw on their own experiences, and combine them with what they are learning to solve the issue. Ask your employees how they have solved problems in the past, what those problems were, and how they would tackle those issues today, knowing what they know now.

While children are motivated extrinsically, by teachers and parents, adult learners find motivation from within. If they themselves don’t want to do something, it is far less likely to get done. To enhance their desire to learn, provide your employees with rewards, such as certifications and badges. This helps reinforce the value of the program, and helps your employees to feel they have achieved something. You may also consider gamifying your learning, with quiz-style assessments, or score-based leaderboards. In addition to connecting the training to knowledge-based needs, show how these milestones connect to your employee’s personal learning desires, and to your company’s core values. Seeing themselves get closer to their goals in a very relevant way provides greater desire to keep going.

In practice, let’s consider an employee who wants to learn better public speaking skills. Their quarterly review also notes they need to work on their communication skills. After providing the employee with a few options for communication courses they can take, they choose one they are interested in. After completing the training, they get a badge they can put on their LinkedIn page, and they complete a survey providing feedback on the course. At their next quarterly review, not only have they improved their communication skills, but their general productivity has increased, and they have signed up for additional trainings since.

In furthering the education of adult learners, it is crucial to remember the differences between them and younger learners. However, by giving them relevant and engaging materials, you can inspire your employees to better themselves, and in turn, better your company.